Podcast • December 30, 2007

At Home with Harold Bloom: (3) The Jazz Bridge

Not the least of Harold Bloom's many charms for me is that he bridges poetry and jazz, to which our conversation turns. Bloom combines ardent fan-hood and that incomparable gift for assimilating and synthesizing all he's heard as well as all he's read, and making meaning of it. Bloom's theoretical work on The Anxiety of Influence was written about poets, of course, but applies in still more obvious ways to the rough evolutions in African-American music in the past century.

Not the least of Harold Bloom’s many charms for me is that he bridges poetry and jazz, to which our conversation turns. Bloom combines ardent fan-hood and that incomparable gift for assimilating and synthesizing all he’s heard as well as all he’s read, and making meaning of it.

Bloom’s theoretical work on The Anxiety of Influence was written about poets, of course, but applies in still more obvious ways to the rough evolutions in African-American music in the past century. As Bloom remarked to me:

That is because the whole jazz tradition from at least Amstrong on features what was called ‘cutting.’ And cutting is the pure instance — from the Greeks on, and it was revived by Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzche — of the agonistic spirit; the agon or the contest. The last cutting contest I heard was the rather unequal match between the extremely brave Branford Marsalis and Sonny Rollins — very brave of Branford. Of all living masters in jazz now, Rollins is surely the greatest extant… Among poets it’s always a competition. Mr. Stevens and Mr. Eliot existed at the same time. Mr. Eliot thought well of Wallace Stevens and published him in England by Faber & Faber. Stevens refused to say a word about Eliot in prose, though it entered into the letters occasionally and it was family tradition; that’s how they told me he didn’t like Eliot or his poetry. Didn’t like the fact that Harmonium had been crowded out by The Waste Land in 1922…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Besides, Harold Bloom actually knew that elusive, suffering genius Bud Powell (1924 – 1966), the pianist who lives as large in legend as the great innovator Charlie Parker. Sonny Rollins, who played with both of them, told us last spring it was part of the unspoken lore of jazz in the 1950s that “Bird was jealous of Bud.”

Bloom haunted Minton’s and other uptown hatcheries of the new music on weekends home from Cornell in the late 1940s. Bud Powell dominated the scene on intermittent leaves from the state mental institution at Creedmoor. Bloom remembers Powell as sharply as people who played with him:

I had conversations with him. He was very tightly restrained. You had the feeling of someone who was balancing himself on a wire, knowing he could plunge over on either side. Cheerful enough, but grim underneath. Very tense. Very beautiful. He had that wonderfully stripped down face at that point. It got tormented and puffy after that, but it was rather an astonishing profile at that point… He was very literate, though he didn’t like to talk in terms of literacy.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.
hartcrane

Who but Harold Bloom would have thought to put a volume of the doomed poet Hart Crane (1899 – 1932) into the hands of Bud Powell?

I actually talked to Bud Powell about Hart Crane. I gave him a copy of the old black-and-gold Liveright edition of the collected poems of Hart Crane. [Bud] was an extremely articulate and quite brilliant person. He read “The Bridge” and “The Broken Tower” at my suggestion, and “Repose of Rivers” and the “Voyager” sequence. And I told him there was a real affinity, I thought. I could not hear “Un Poco Loco” played by him, whether on the recordings — those three wonderful takes — or in person without hearing “The Broken Tower”… “The bells, I say the bells break down their tower and swing I know not where.” Because that’s what you feel is happening. Expecially when the now, alas, late Max Roach, in that extraordinary drum work in the latter part of it, particularly on the final take, the definitive take… You really feel the bells are breaking down their tower and swinging I know not where. You feel that the mind has reached its limit and is coming apart. Un Poco Loco indeed. The title is well chosen. It’s a highly autobiographical work, in a very complex way, “Un Poco Loco.” And for me it’s one of the summits of jazz. A cowbell ringing doom in the Hart Crane sense, or the Herman Melville sense.

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

And who but Harold Bloom would swing the conversation through accounts of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Coltrane and Proust, around all the glories of American music, back to our starting point? “Well,” he said, “it’s Walt Whitman. The two great American contributions to the world’s art, in the end, are Walt Whitman and, after him, Armstrong and jazz. Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Mingus, what you will. If I had to choose between the two, ultimately, I wouldn’t. I would say that the genius of this nation at its best is indeed Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong.”

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

Podcast • December 28, 2007

At Home with Harold Bloom: (2) on the Humanities

By his own account, Harold Bloom has lost a step or two at age 77, after major heart surgery. His reading rate is not what it used to be, he says. In his early thirties, the basic Bloomian reading speed with a serious text was 1000 pages an hour; it might be less than half that today. Meaning that nowadays it could take an afternoon, not just the lunch hour, to consume War and Peace.

By his own account, Harold Bloom has lost a step or two at age 77, after major heart surgery. His reading rate is not what it used to be, he says. In his early thirties, the basic Bloomian reading speed with a serious text was 1000 pages an hour; it might be less than half that today. Meaning that nowadays it could take an afternoon, not just the lunch hour, to consume War and Peace.

harold bloom

But Bloom’s mode of reading fast, writing fast, and memorizing almost everything still verges on the freakish, and his zest for the text is undimmed, as are his combativeness, his mockery, self-mockery, and his delight in seeing himself as both king and bad-boy of his literary profession. In our long conversation this past Fall, Professor Bloom gave us a short course in memorization, in effect: “How to Memorize… and What,” starting with Tennyson’s Ulysses He reviewed what he calls the “ghastly condition,” the “sellout” and “suicide” of the “Humanities” in American universities before “the School of Resentment.” Judge for yourself the mix of passion and put-on in Bloom’s voice. And then when I insisted he give us his constructive doctine on teaching teachers — he is, after all, the Art Blakey of literature scholars, in that so many of the great ones took his training — he gave an incisive guide, naming names and first principles.

The great Hillel says: do three things. Be deliberate in judgment. Raise up many disciples. And build a hedge around the Torah.

My version of that is to say: Be deliberate in judgment. Teach many students, but make sure that they are never going to resemble one another or resemble you yourself in the slightest. That is to say, remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us in Self-Reliance: “that which I can gain from another is never tuition but only provocation.” So even with my doctoral students, every class I’ve ever taught is pure provocation. It is an attempt to make them arrive at self-tuition. This was not true of my contemporaries. This was not true of the school of Deconstruction, or of the Marxists, or the Semioticians, or of the New Historicists, the Foucault-eyites which is what they are (they all follow Foucault). This is not true of the Lacanians. They all teach a method, and people do not become themselves, but they become Paul de Man, my old friend, but not someone of whom I could approve because as I told him: “you clone endlessly.” I have never cloned, I would never try to clone… Ah, the hedge around the Torah. The Torah is for me the Western Canon, and to some extent the Eastern one as well. And the hedge doesn’t mean a fence, or a high barrier such as the Israelis now in their desperation at living in a very bad neighborhood may yet have to put up around the whole state. It means an open sort of a thing. With a hedge it can always grow. It is a natural kind of a thing. Hillel is a very good guide…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

There’s more to come in Part 3.

Podcast • December 25, 2007

At Home with Harold Bloom: (1) on Walt Whitman

Professor Bloom asked me to ask him about what is coming to feel like an "obsession" with Walt Whitman. I asked him also to cross over into music, politics and sports. And then we agreed to keep digressing as the spirit moved us. I asked him at the outset: could Whitman actually be displacing Shakespeare in the center-ring of the Bloomian circus?

What was new at Yale this Fall was that for the first time in 53 years, the great pole star of our literary-critical firmament, Harold Bloom, did not give any of his famous courses — on Shakespeare, or on “how to read a poem.” He did, however, indulge Open Source in a long conversation that confirms a major recovery of health and the steady fire of heart and mind as Bloom writes a grand revision of his masterwork on The Anxiety of Influence.

Professor Bloom asked me to ask him about what is coming to feel like an “obsession” with Walt Whitman. I asked him also to cross over into music, politics and sports. And then we agreed to keep digressing as the spirit moved us. I asked him at the outset: could Whitman actually be displacing Shakespeare in the center-ring of the Bloomian circus?

Not quite… I say specifically at the opening of this work in progress — my equivalent of Joyce’s Wake, Blooms Wake as it were — that the two figures who are threads in this labyrinth are William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. And though I don’t quite grant them equal status, I would be prepared to say that what Shakespeare was for the Renaissance, Whitman was for the 19th Century and after: sombody who “breaks the new road,” which is what D. H. Lawrence wonderfully said of him. He breaks the new road for the New World, and for better and for worse…

The reason why English is now the lingua franca, replacing French, is because it’s American English, and it’s American commercial dominance everywhere. Even though in the age of Benito Bush, as I like to call him and insist upon calling him, that dominance may soon be called into question. He has done everything he can to ruin our economy, to ruin our international standing, to ruin our armed forces. In fact, he is the Decline and Fall of the American Empire all of himself, our Caligula, Our Nero, you name it. But he’s not as colorful as those splendid rascals…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

And so Bloom digresses… to the marks of Shakespeare, Shelley and the King James Bible on Whitman, and Whitman’s mark on “the American religion,” neither Judaic nor Christian, but something indigenous and very new in the world. Would that Whitman’s Democratic Vistas had left as deep a mark on American politics, which Professor Bloom segments today as follows: “one-third plutocracy, one-third oligarchy, one-third theocracy… There’s not much Whitmania left in the public sphere.”

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

Podcast • December 20, 2007

Helen Vendler: Reading and Riffing on W. B. Yeats

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3) Helen Vendler: A Poem’s Best Friend Helen Vendler — the poet’s best friend and the reader’s too — helps you ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Helen Vendler here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

vendler4

Helen Vendler: A Poem’s Best Friend

Helen Vendler — the poet’s best friend and the reader’s too — helps you hear a poem by showing you first how to see it.

Look, for example, at Yeats’s famous World War I memorial for Major Robert Gregory, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The difference between reading this elegy not as a speech, but as a poem is as simple and striking as realizing that the poem has the form of a perfect cube:

AN IRISH AIRMAN FORESEES HIS DEATH

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

From THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE (1919) in William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems

That is, the shape of it is 4 x 4 x 4. Four beats in each line. Four lines in each of the “quatrains” (each in the “perfect” rhyming order a b a b, in this case). And four quatrains (not separated here into four stanzas) in the poem.

So the one-off form of the thing is as elegantly, decisively squared away as the soldierly beat of the marching monosyllables: “fate,” “hate,” “love,” “cross,” “loss,” and the rest. Form makes a tight fit with the cool, collected thought the poem voices. The form itself is a statement of the sad but settled order in Major Gregory’s mind. So the original shape of this poem becomes virtually inseparable from its “message.” Or as Helen Vendler puts it in her new account of Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, “By such formal means Yeats confirms that the airman’s choice is the correct one for his soul.”

vendler yeats2

Yeats is labeled the “last Romantic” by some, the “first Modernist” by others. It’s not the sort of argument Helen Vendler is impelled to settle. The thrust of her much-admired “close reading” is rather that Yeats was the Compleat Formalist: a hard-working, endlessly original genius when it came to variation and invention in the size, shape and settings of his staggering phrases, a master of all the poetic tricks of “rhythm, balance, pattern,” as he said, and the imagery of passion.

There’s an informal conversation here — and not specially about form, either. When you ask Helen Vendler about a Yeats poem, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard has an endearing, unaffected habit of reaching for her trusty Collected Poems and then introducing, reciting and riffing on the work with barely a look at the text.

I asked her to sit by the hearth for Open Source and show us how to see and hear a few of the great Yeats poems we think we half-know… and to break through the surface familiarity of lines like “That is no country for old men,” or “A terrible beauty is born,” and “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The poems are: “Sailing to Byzantium”, “Never Give All The Heart”, “Easter 1916”, and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

Pull up a comfortable chair, please…

Podcast • December 18, 2007

Philip Gura’s American Transcendentalism

Emersonians, awake! Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle…We’re wallowing in ...

Emersonians, awake!

Evening Grosbeaks & American Dawn

You regulars from the comment thread know who you are: mynocturama, peggysue, bobby, allison, nother and of course, potter, among the vast and various summer circle

We’re wallowing in the transcendent mystery of things with Philip Gura, the author of American Transcendentalism: A History. Gura is an eminent professor of literature and culture at the University of North Carolina, but he’s also “one of us,” avid in the non-dogmatic, non-exclusive pursuit of the ecstatic, the invisible, the divine.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gura here (32 minutes, 15 MB MP3)

Toward the end of this conversation, Philip Gura explains how it began for him, 44 years ago. He was a child in Ware, Massachusetts, the son of immigrant mill folk, when he came upon a nest of “huge, garrulous, yellow birds eating choke cherries.” When he wrote to the American Museum of Natural History for help identifying his find, the great ornithologist Dean Amadon wrote him directly to say the birds had to be evening grosbeaks, cousins of the goldfinch.

Naturalist and Prophet: HDT

Birds and New England nature led to Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau led to the genius moment and the genius cluster of the American renaissance in Concord — writers, thinkers, social consciences that to this day “represent something about our past that we want to be part of” and a key that perhaps hasn’t been turned all the way in the door of American life.

The insistent voice of Mary McGrath asks, as always: “Okay, Chris, what’s the question for listeners?”

Okay, Mary, here it is: Do the mostly sectarian, literalist and Fundamentalist questions around our politics of 2008 prove that transcendentalist impulses thrive — or expired long ago? Does the tempest that Mitt Romney, for example, has stirred around himself and his Mormonism mark a dismal falling-off — or rather an amazing continuity — of the old transcendentalist passion about faith, spirit and the religious underpinnings of this nation’s life. Extra points for apt Emersonian quotes. And extra-extra points for apt quotes from other than Emerson.

Podcast • December 17, 2007

Speaking of Music: Alex Ross’s 20th Century

However we listen to the twentieth century, the links as well as the tensions and the often grisly politics are endlessly absorbing. And Alex Ross, the New Yorker's music critic and star blogger, is brilliant at the many jobs involved here: interviewing, distilling hundreds of major biographies, and above all: listening to the music and his own heart.
Alex-Ross-(David-Michalek)

Alex Ross. (Photo by David Michalek.)

My subtitle for Alex Ross’s addictive encyclopedia The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century would be: How the headquarters of musical composition moved from Vienna to Los Angeles?

From the old home address of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms to its new home in and around Hollywood: home, that is, of the refugee modernists Stravinsky and Schoenberg and of course the movie business and the film score. Name your monument from Bernard Herrmann’s themes for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and the great Hitchcocks, to Tan Dun’s for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Actually, the big-picture outline in my own amateur ears is different — more Vienna to New Orleans and Havana. Or: how the Second Viennese School after Schoenberg, Webern and Berg petered out in unlistenable, elitist theory, and all the world’s music was recharged by Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms, suffering, triumph, spirituality and social consciousness. The story in my head is not so much Mahler to John Williams, say, as Bartok to Charlie Parker and Chucho Valdes. But then, in the words of Oliver Sacks, “what do I know?”

However we listen to the twentieth century, the links (“the glassy chords of Thelonious Monk have a Schoenbergian tinge,” Alex Ross writes) as well as the tensions (Duke Ellington’s polite but firm rejection of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess as “Negro opera”) and the often grisly politics (Shostakovich’s stricken waiting for Stalin’s phone calls, Richard Strauss’s abasement before Goebbels and Hitler) are endlessly absorbing. And Alex Ross, the New Yorker‘s music critic and star blogger, is brilliant at the many jobs involved here: interviewing, distilling hundreds of major biographies, and above all: listening to the music and his own heart. Creative convergence is the keynote of Ross’s expectation for the new century, after the fantastic diversifications of the old one:

If you were to listen to [the modern pop artist] Bjork’s “An Echo, A Stain,” in which the singer declaims fragmentary melodies against a soft cluster of choral voices, and then move on to Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle Ayre, where pulsating dance beats underpin multi-ethnic songs of Moorish Spain, you might conclude that Bjork’s was the classical composition and Golijov’s was something else. One possible destination for twenty-first-century music is a final “great fusion”: intelligent pop artists and extroverted composers speaking more or less the same language.

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, page 542.
Golijov-conducting

 

We are lucky to have Osvaldo Golijov in the conversation. Osvaldo is the bubbling embodiment of the new complexity of things. His Passion According to Saint Mark (2000) was my introduction: a Christian meditation in the tradition of the Bach Passions, but with Cuban drummers on the Boston Symphony stage, from a young composer who grew up in Argentina in a Rumanian Jewish family — with a passion for Astor Piazzola’s tangoes and all the demanding dance music of Latin America.

He is famous now for his collaborations (with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and the Kronos String Quartet) and for his serial immersion in folk and classical traditions: sephardic, flamenco, gypsy and Arab musics, among others. And as it happens, his first big film score is just out, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth. He speaks up here for restoration of the “groove” in so-called classical music — not least because Bach would demand it.

Podcast • December 14, 2007

Juan Cole: from Bonaparte to Bush

Behind a facade of lawmaking and reasonableness visible in Bonaparte’s correspondence crouched the grim realities of corruption, power, and terror. When Bonaparte ordered General Menou to the key port city of Rosetta near Alexandria to ...

Behind a facade of lawmaking and reasonableness visible in Bonaparte’s correspondence crouched the grim realities of corruption, power, and terror. When Bonaparte ordered General Menou to the key port city of Rosetta near Alexandria to organize that province, he wrote with unusual candor, “The Turks can only be led by the greatest severity. Every day I cut off five or six heads in the streets of Cairo. We had to manage them up to the present in such a way as to erase that reputation for terror that preceded us. Today, on the contrary, it is necessary to take a tone that will cause them to obey, and to obey, for them, is to fear.” He meant by “Turks” all Muslims, of course.

Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , pages 104-5.

The resonances and repetitions in history never come as much of a surprise. The shocking part is just that we so studiously ignore the pattern in what we’re doing, and the warnings.

The indispensable blogger-scholar on Iraq, Juan Cole of Michigan, had the idea of rethinking Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the mid-nineties when it seemed a nicely academic project. On completion today after five years of the war in Iraq, Cole’s historical reconstruction, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , reads like the map of folly we never consulted, an ugly walk through history we were determined not to know.

Whimsical arrogance in a war of choice is the start of the links. When General Bonaparte (then 28!) gathered his expeditionary force at Toulon in May, 1798, not even his war minister knew where Napoleon was headed — for a round-about attack on England, perhaps, or eastward somehow to disrupt England’s commerce with India. Napoleon’s version of “Bring ’em on!” was the promise to his troops about the slave soldiers of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, the mamluk. “A few days after we arrive,” Napoleon vowed, “they will no longer exist.”

How do you say “fubar” in French? Napoleon had provided heavy woolen uniforms, and no water canteens, for troops who were prostrated by heat and thirst, and killed themselves in substantial numbers. They were also confronted and killed by an “insurgency” that kept building toward the Cairo revolt in late October, 1798 — a broad uprising with a “nativist dimension,” of merchants and guildsmen, Bedouin and peasants from the Cairo hinterlands. The French response was a draconian spectacle of mass executions, in the spirit of Napoleon’s order: “Burn that village. Make a terrifying example of it.”

By then, however, Britain’s Admiral Nelson, in alliance with the Ottomans, had destroyed Napoleon’s fleet in the Battle of the Nile. French forces in Egypt were cut off (eventually to be ferried home on English ships) and the mission was effectively doomed. Not that the cheering ever stopped, or the pretense of a mission civilisatrice, a project of liberty and modernity constructing a “French Republic of Egypt,” was ever abandoned by those who believed it in the first place. Cole’s history quotes a familiar-sounding Captain Say in Napoleon’s engineering corps: “The people of Egypt were most wretched,” Say wrote. “How will they not cherish the liberty that we are bringing them?”

Napoleon in Egypt and George Bush in Iraq were book-end fiascos, Juan Cole argues in our conversation — for neatly opposite reasons. Napoleon was too early in Egypt — before the Ottoman sick-man was ripe for dismemberment, before European arms could overwhelm native resistance; but in fact he set the course of French imperial expansion in North Africa and also Southeast Asia. George Bush hit Iraq too late, Cole says, long after bullying colonialism’s day was done.

That’s the historian’s Two Centuries in Review. Juan Cole, the impassioned real-time observer of Iraq, also gives us a Five Years in Review, on the war, and a Surge in Review, on 2007.

Podcast • December 6, 2007

A Free Life: Ha Jin’s Immigration Story

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3)What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful immigration ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful immigration debate we’re not quite having in the US?

Ha Jin: the long arc to America

I can imagine two reactions.

First, the generous sigh of sympathy — “give them a break!” — on being reminded just how humbling it is to hit the American beach running, to grasp our idioms (“in the doghouse,” “shooting the breeze,” “getting laid,” and “getting laid off”) — how just plain hard it is to confront the routine suspicions and exclusion, to cover the rent, to keep a family clothed, to see a way forward.

Second, there’s the more complicated, maybe off-putting realization under Ha Jin’s endless documentation that getting started here is not exactly an American experience. For a Chinese immigrant it’s a Chinese experience. Ha Jin reminds me of my daughter Sarah’s discovery: “When you’re pregnant, everybody’s pregnant.” Everybody in Ha Jin’s American saga is Chinese, and the divisions (between Taiwan and the mainland), the strongest feelings (“I spit at China…”), the intimate language, the brave hearts and weaklings, are all Chinese.

In the Americanization process that Ha Jin writes about there is no baseball, no Abraham Lincoln or FDR, no Paul Bunyan or American camp-fire songs, no Grand Canyon, no interest in our local or national politics… and no outward sentiment about a golden path toward the citizenship moment and pledge of allegiance. John Updike’s New Yorker review of Ha Jin notes that his characters “strive less to let America in than to squeeze China out — ‘squeeze every bit of it out of themselves.'” Is this part of what upsets us about immigration — that these strangers are so wrapped up in old languages, and their own damned dramas?

To me the slow-release beauty of A Free Life is its very long arc of acculturation and assimilation, over about 15 years. Between 1985 and 2000, the protagonist Nan Wu, with his wife and son, follow Ha Jin‘s own path from Boston to Georgia and back. Nan is first a graduate student in political science at Brandeis, then a translator and cook in Manhattan, then a successful-enough strip-mall restaurateur in suburban Atlanta, reading Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and W. H. Auden in his private hours. But by the time he is forty his poetic muse is in control; he is determined to be an artist and to run the risks of an expressive life. He is sounding like no one so much as the arch-American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self-Reliance.”

“He didn’t want to die a successful businessman,” Nan realizes, summoning up his real credo: “Do something moneyed people cannot do… Why hadn’t he devoted himself to writing poetry?”

In Nan’s Chinese circle, he has taken a lonely and provocative position.

“You never cease to amaze me.” Mei Hong stood up. “A madman is what you are. Let me tell you, you’re also a banana [yellow on the outside, white on the inside]!” She jabbed her finger at Nan. “You always despise China and our language. That’s why you’ve been writing in English and dreaming of becoming another Conrad or Nabokov. Let me tell you, you’re just making a buffoon of yourself! Get real — stop fancying yourself a great poet.”

Flustered, Nan felt his chest constricting. But he scrambled to answer, “To write in English is my personal choice. Unlike you, I prefer to be a real individual.”

“Yeah, to be a lone wolf,” scoffed Mei Hong.

“Exactly!” …

He preferred to stand alone.

Ha Jin, A Free Life, Pantheon, 2007. Pages 496-7.

Tom Tancredo, or Lou Dobbs for that matter: say hello to Ha Jin. Can Ha Jin point us to the core of this campaign frenzy about immigration, and immigrants?

Podcast • December 5, 2007

Chavismo with some new brakes on it

The Nobel fictionist Gabriel Garcia Marquez left a brilliant double-exposure of Hugo Chavez after they shared a plane ride not long after Chavez took power in Venezuela in 1999: Hugo Chavez “While he moved off ...

The Nobel fictionist Gabriel Garcia Marquez left a brilliant double-exposure of Hugo Chavez after they shared a plane ride not long after Chavez took power in Venezuela in 1999:

chavez

Hugo Chavez

“While he moved off among his military escort and old friends,” remembered Garcia Marquez, “I shuddered at the thrill of having gladly traveled and talked with two contrary men. One to whom inveterate luck has offered the opportunity to save his country. And the other, a conjurer who could go down in history as one more despot.”

The near-tie vote Sunday against the Chavez’s idea of constitutional “reform” for Venezula confirms the sense of Chavez as a man on the edge, in a dangerous conflict of self and ideals, a character out a Garcia Marquez novel, in a “headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams.” Is this the story? Does the characterization of the demagog who would be dictator come any closer than the cartoons to explaining why the “Bolivarian revolution” is still so magnetic in much of Latin America and so scary in New York as well as Washington.

So I’ve been asking square-one sorts of questions about Chavismo : about his ideas of “participatory democracy” (is it democracy at all?), about “21st Century Socialism,” which may be quite different from the 19th and 20th Century versions; about the populist economic nationalism that Chavez has thrown up against the “neo-liberalism” of the “Washington consensus” on free markets, free trade, and multinational investments.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Julia Buxton, Jennifer McCloy and James Green here (36 minutes, 17 MB MP3)

Our guests here are: Julia Buxton of the University of Bradford in the UK. She writes extensively (and sympathetically) about Chavez and Chavismo on openDemocracy. Jennifer McCoy of Georgia State Universty and the Carter Center, both in Atlanta. And James Green, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Brown University.

Podcast • November 30, 2007

"This was the worst war ever" Ken Burns

William James: the mind of Pragmatism …modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors ...
wm james

William James: the mind of Pragmatism

…modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors. Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect on him. The horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis; war taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us. [Emphasis added]

History is a bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed. No detail of the wounds they made is spared us, and the Greek mind fed upon the story. Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen.

William James, The Moral Equivalent of War, a speech at Stanford University, 1906,

There’s something wrong with you if you’re not transfixed by Ken Burns’ version of World War II — the gallantry of the “melting pot” in combat, the industrial genius and shared sacrifice at home. But there’s something wrong with you if you’re not troubled by this telling, too. Why — as I ask Ken Burns in this conversation — after 60 years and the movie Saving Private Ryan, plus Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and Studs Terkel’s The Good War among the best-selling books… why do we still hunger to hear again how good we are, or were? Why the mind-numbing stress on the American effort and American victory when our casualties were less than four percent of the allied losses? Why is the ratio of Russian to American dead in the war against Hitler such an obscure statistic? (Cold War historian John Gaddis of Yale put the imbalance at 90 to 1.) Furthermore, if our nostalgia watching Burns’ World War II is not just rose-colored swing-jazz sentiment but real longing for republican virtue, why aren’t we forced to ask ourselves: where did we lose it, and how might we get it back? Rest assured that the hugely gifted and mindful Ken Burns is equal to all my questions. In his anti-ironic earnestness, the exemplary filmmaker felt many of my misgivings long before I did. And he was ready, before we finished, to answer William James’ point straightforwardly.

Ken Burns

Ken Burns: the mind of PBS’s The War

We do acknowledge this paradox of war. It is, you know, absolutely frustrating in that [war] is compelling as well as horrific, but we can arm ourselves with the danger. Would you give up and not paint Guernica? Would you not show what it is like because it wouldn’t work? …So let us not stop bearing witness to what takes place. Let us not stop organizing that material into some coherent narrative that suggests the possibility that we might mitigate or check that seemingly natural inclination toward the bellicose, toward the pugnacious. And that’s — I’m sorry to say, in some ways — the best we can hope for.

Ken Burns, documentarian of The War, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the First Parish Church, Cambridge. October 23,2007,